Lifelong learning and family carers: a study of informal learning

Dumbleton, Sue (2007). Lifelong learning and family carers: a study of informal learning. In: The times they are a-changin’: Researching transitions in lifelong learning. CRLL 4th Biennial International Conference 2007, 22-24 Jun 2007, University of Stirling.


This paper is based on a small scale study undertaken in 2005 as part of my studies for an M.A. in education. The paper is intended to stimulate discussion about the nature of learning, where learning takes place and the range of activities currently constructed as learning.
The initial idea for the study arose from a long-standing interest in the education and training of social care workers. This traditionally unqualified workforce is now subject to regulation and registration tied to the achievement of national qualifications. This development chimes with government targets for lifelong learning and for continuing professional development.
A strong aspect of the value base of social care is partnership with carers. Respect for and partnership with carers, an area addressed in the social care curriculum at all levels. In relation to disabled children who use social care services carers are usually family members (parents, grandparents or siblings). Family carers (sometimes called informal carers) are not required to gain qualifications to look after a disabled child for practical and philosophical reasons. Practically, it would be impossible to enforce this requirement, and philosophically it would be regarded as gross interference by the state into family life.
Nevertheless, family carers often gain expert status in relation to their caring responsibilities. Although this expertise is recognised by carers themselves and by service providers, the process by which expert status is gained is not usually constructed as learning in the same way as gaining a vocational qualification. Personal experience of caring is valued, but in a different way to the achievement of formal qualifications. With our contemporary emphasis on recognition of prior learning it is certainly possible for carers to make a transition from informal to formal learning. Whether or not they wish, or are able, to do so, is another matter.
Because the dominant discourse of lifelong learning favours formal and assessed learning which, crucially, takes place in public, the people whose circumstances I studied are not considered learners – either by themselves or by others. Yet, through an analysis of notions of lifelong learning, I aim to show that family carers can indeed be termed lifelong learners. Drawing on the work of Mary Hamilton, Peter Alheit and Etienne Wenger I show that notions of lifelong learning are applicable to family carers, though the carers themselves might not accept the status of learner.
This study is limited by the very small sample of respondents. The methodology, narrative enquiry, was well suited to the study but results in highly personal data. Nevertheless, the literature on caring and childhood disability indicate that the experiences of the carers in this study are common to many others in similar situations.
The paper concludes with a recommendation that ideas about where learning takes place be broadened to include the home. As an employee of the Open University I am well aware of how much learning takes place in the home - but the learning is usually formal and assessed. Informal learning and unassessed learning which takes place invisibly tends not to be constructed as learning – thus excluding 668,200 in Scotland from claiming the status of learner.

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